World War I and the German U-boat fleet

Daily Sketch headline, 21 November 1918.

On 19 November 1918, eight days after World War I had ended, officers from the Royal Navy Submarine Service gathered on a depot ship in Harwich, on the coast of Essex. One of the officers, Commander Stephen King-Hall, told his diary of a “merry” atmosphere that evening, “for it is questionable if there had ever been so many submarine officers gathered together in one place.” That same night, train carriages filled with journalists, cameramen, and artists also descended on Harwich. Given the lack of space on the depot ships, one reporter had to sleep on a billiard table. “The cause of the gathering,” King-Hall wrote, “was enough to make the dumb sing.”¹

Early the next day, King-Hall and the rest of the assembled Royal Navy parties sailed their light cruisers and destroyers out into the North Sea. Expectant crowds lined the shores of Harwich to await their return — along with their new guests. As the morning fog cleared, there came into view a cluster of inbound vessels flying both the British and German naval ensigns. Twenty submarines from the Imperial German Navy were soon anchored in the River Stour. Many more would arrive in the coming months.

These submarines, called Unterseeboots or U-boats in their country of origin, had only weeks before been the pride of the German navy. Sneaking beneath the water’s surface, they targeted merchant ships headed for the Allied Powers in an attempt to cut their supply lines. These activities earned them a fearsome reputation in Allied propaganda. The British government described them as “ruthless pests” and “the greatest menace that ever faced our Empire.”² Yet here they were, sailing into captivity to form a sprawling metal corridor that came to be known as U-boat Avenue.

The surrender of the U-boats was one of the terms of the Armistice agreement that ended World War I on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918. The Germans, on whom the Armistice had placed full blame for the conflict, were to bring the U-boats to a designated spot between Britain and mainland Europe where they would be boarded by Royal Navy sailors and guided back towards British shores. After four years of war, emotions were high on both sides. Gordon S. Maxwell, a British naval officer involved in the surrender process, later recalled:

Twenty miles from the coast [we] met the U-Boats; all our men being at action stations, for they had learnt by long and bitter experience that the only German that can be trusted is a dead one … Without demonstration of any kind these sea-murderers, who had fouled the name of the second largest Navy in the world with a stain that nothing can wash out, went to their captivity … their prison was the River Stour.³

From November 1918 to April 1919, 168 U-boats found their way to Harwich via this process —now a largely forgotten event, but arguably one of the defining moments of the twentieth century. This article presents an original history of the surrender through the eyes of those who took part.

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